Your best friend can be your worst enemy.
Video games have helped shape an entire generation of consumers, designers, engineers, and even firefighters. Most people probably couldn’t even imagine a time when games didn’t have a solid foothold on our culture or influenced how we spent our free time. Video games have moved into the mainstream and massively popular titles have turned meager development studios multi-billion dollar code factories that employ hundreds or even thousands. Will all the infrastructure, competition and brainpower powering the biggest video games of today be a driving force for virtual reality gaming or a hindrance?
A Brief History of Gaming
There was a time when you’d be so excited for the newest game title to come out, you’d call your friends over immediately to show it off or maybe invite to participate if there was a player two option. We still share this general excitement and buzz of course, but it now takes the form of Reddit or YouTube comments and we won’t dive down that rabbit hole. There was a time when solid gameplay and genuine innovation was achieved with nothing more than 16 bits. The general success of a title was primarily based on if the game was actually fun to play.
Today, we find ourselves in an unholy land where marketing hype, disgruntled commenters, and a general fear to innovate and experiment reign supreme. We can all take a little blame for the current state of the industry. Gamers fear change and often vent unrealistic expectations and marketing executives can be more focused on maintaining the status quo rather than be part of real growth. Big business can often be the death of big ideas and replication can often be favored over a pioneering spirit.
Don’t Rock the Boat!
The market has always been a bit of a copycat game. At a time, nearly everyone was working on an FPS title, all with similar controls and game modes. Then, for a while, online survival games became popular and we were hit with a bunch of titles, all with the same feel. When you’re so busy keeping up with the “next guy”, it’s very difficult to make strides in a new direction. This honestly isn’t built on anything nefarious, but its easier for players to jump into your game if they instinctively know how to play it. Development focus across the board went into the same standard gameplay but with the nifty new addition of microtransactions and DLC. Thanks, that was the nefarious part we were looking for.
Our modern age also gave rise to an interesting system of checks and balances; internet comments. Game companies are often dragged through the dirt for the smallest things and to be fair, this feedback has often yielded some positive results. EA Games’ release of Star Wars Battlefront 2 received unprecedented outrage over questionable monetization practices, the use of loot boxes and stiff player progression. Since the launch, EA has made significant strides to make it up to their fans employed a series of patches and other free content to even things out. The lesson has been learned, fear the hand of the internet because you could be one angry rant or perfectly timed meme away from disaster.
Today we see leading developers like EA Games and Ubisoft scrambling to keep up with upstarts like Epic Games with their blockbuster title, Fortnite. No longer content with a fresh coat of paint slapped over the newest Call of Duty title, players responded to Fortnite’s battle royal style gameplay but this game wasn’t exactly the first or last of it’s kind.
But it wasn’t just this style of gameplay that put Epic games on the map. It is the masterful way that they balance a free2play model with cyclic skins, modes and other elements into “Seasons” that keep players coming back for more. The giants of the industry now rush to jump on the bandwagon to claim a slice of your kid’s allowance. This is the market that everyone is targeting and this market doesn’t own VR headsets.
Developing for the YouTube Generation
The recent release of Apex Legends from EA and the title’s quick rise in popularity shows us that the standard copycat model works. The free2play model combined with a high degree of accessibility results in a massive number of eyeballs and thumbs on a game. A high active player base like this means more players share gameplay videos, showcase epic wins or new skins, and share they do! YouTube gameplay videos have been the hottest thing since sliced bread for years and this is all thanks to a relatively young and eager fan base. A whole generation is viewing most media over YouTube and Twitch and these kids aren’t wearing VR headsets when they do it… Not yet.
You don’t need to look far to see how free2play copycat games can draw the attention of the market. Free to play games like Paladins heavily borrow from big success stories like Overwatch but none of it really screams “innovation”; it screams “big data” and number crunching. How does one even pitch an idea in this day and age that involves VR or VR gaming when only a fraction of consumers could even play it? Can a company chance reprisal from internet trolls for trying something new and risky? How can you push for an experience that players can’t readily share with others? Unfortunately, this is not the optimal climate for trying new things.
Exceptions to Every Rule
How could more data possibly be a bad thing you ask? True, in the right hands, the right data can be used to make a calculated and knowledgable decision, and in the end, companies need to protect shareholders and the bottom line. You’re right. However, data in the wrong hands can stagnate
VR Headsets like the Oculus Rift, VIVE and Windows mixed reality headsets depend on controls that are deeply rooted in gaming. A handful of notable developers have released or are actively working on VR game titles and are successfully stepping outside their comfort zones. The PSVR (PlayStation VR) has been making waves with more sophisticated virtual gaming experiences and developers like Bethesda have released Fallout VR, Skyrim VR, and Doom VFR. These folks are considered to be at the forefront of VR gaming. We can only hope that the backlash they received for genuinely trying to revitalize the survival game genre with Fallout 76 won’t discourage them from experimenting in the future.
A Path Forward…
Thanks to a handful of visionaries and a few gifted indie developers we might just see the next great VR game that redefines gameplay. With the Oculus Quest just around the corner, we may soon see an easy-to-use and accessible device help propel the hearts and minds of a whole generation of game developers. There’s no denying the influence gaming has had on VR headset and interface design but will the major influencers in the industry really be a driving force for VR gaming in the future?
Until more of us are enjoying our games, movies and other media in virtual reality, it will be difficult for established game developers to commit serious resources and time towards VR development. Large companies may have more resources to experiment, but they often have more roadblocks, heightened bureaucracy and become rigid and inflexible. Big money and big data talks.
This VR world can be a tough pill to swallow.